Sunday, November 18, 2007

Something from Nothing?

I have had a number of discussions here and elsewhere concerning the existence of god. (Really? Yes, really.)

Any number of arguments have been tossed back and forth by myself and others. One of the more perplexing questions posed to me by Sweet Jazzy Cat among others is: Why is there something rather than nothing?

I've had no answer to that one. I've made a few stabs at it, to little effect. Stephen Colbert posed this question to Richard Dawkins on the Colbert Report several months ago. Dawkins had no definitive answer either. While I don't believe having an answer to this question is crucial in a determination of god's existence, it is a question that has dogged me since the first time Jazzy asked it of me.

I am currently reading Victor J. Stenger's GOD: The Failed Hypothiesis - How science shows that god does not exist. For a non-scientific fellow like myself it is a fairly difficult read. It covers a great deal of ground in debunking pretty much every argument for god's existence mainly from the scientific perspective.

While I haven't finished the book - at this writing I'm only about half way thru it - I was very happy to find a section, a sub-section actually titled - surprise, surprise! - "Why is there Something Rather than Nothing?" - the last section of a chapter titled "Cosmic Evidence."

I must admit that I had sneaked a peak ahead of my reading and found this enticing little discussion. However, I utilized great discipline in waiting to read the section until I actually read all that came before.

Now the "discussion" of this particular question is not what you'd call in depth . The section is only about a page and a half in length. But let's take a look at what Stenger has to say.

Stenger writes that this question "is often the last recourse of the theist who seeks to argue for the existence of God from physics and cosmology and finds that all his other arguments fail." Stenger goes on to quote philosopher Bede Rundle who claims that it is "philosophy's central, and most perplexing, question." Rundle's answer is "There has to be something."

First: What is the defiintion of "nothing." Does it have properties? If so, does that make it "something?" Is "nothing" a more natural state than "something?"

Stenger uses the example of snowflakes, one of the more ephemeral phenomenons in nature to illustrate that simple systems are unstable. "Nothing" is as simple as it gets. Why there is something rather than nothing is that 'nothing' is unstable. "The natural state of affairs is something rather than nothing. An empty universe requires supernatural intervention - not a full one. Only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as god, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something is just what we would expect if there is no god."

This is all rather cryptic to me. I must admit that I don't altogether follow it. I doubt that it will put the question to rest, but its something rather than nothing. No?



cipher said...


I find that a rather unconvincing argument. It begs the question - Why does reality work that way? Why is it "set up" so that something is easier to maintain than nothing? Because that's just the way it is? Is that a better explanation than "because God wanted it that way"?

Theists often point to the "fine tuning" necessary for life to evolve and/or be sustained. Scientists reply that there may be many universes in which it hasn't - we just happen to be in the one in which it has, so we're here to ask the question.

I've found that often, radical materialists can be just as biased as theists - stacking the deck in an argument in order to end up with the outcome they prefer.

Buddhists don't believe in a creator. One of the foundations of their belief system is the principle of dependent origination - every phenomenon must be caused by a prior one. They don't see God as first cause, because they then ask, "What caused God?"

Not long ago, I was talking to a lama and his translator. I asked him the same question - why is there something, rather than nothing? At first, they didn't understand what I was asking; they kept giving me the party line - that we create our circumstances by our actions, through the mechanics of karma. I persisted, and finally, the translator got it. He had a startled look on his face, and said, "We don't ask that question." It had never occurred to him! It was just the way it was.

I'm not arguing for God's existence. What I am saying is that ultimately, everyone sees what he or she wants to.

Terry S said...


I tend to agree with you, I suppose since Stenger gave the question such short shrift. However, my truncation perhaps made his answer less clear. Here are a couple of key sentences that may lend clarity to his answer:

"The example (of the snowflakes) illustrates that many simple systems of particles are unstable, that is, have limited lifetimes as they undergo spontaneous phase transitions to more complex structures of lower energy. [Nothing] would likely undergo a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, like a universe containing matter. The transition of nothing-to-something is a natural one, not requiring any agent." This may or may not lend credence to Stenger's answer.

When taken with the issues handled prior - the existence of a non-material soul, the life force, the origin of the laws of physics and much more this particular section carries more weight.

It is difficult for anyone to totally dismiss their bias when dealing with a contentious issue.

I find that Stenger's work is perhaps less inclined to giving over to an agenda. Certainly, his mind is surely made up, but he has taken great pains to maintain a scientific impartiality in his published work. He examines many of the arguments for god's existence, giving them credence where due, but in the end justly finds the point where such arguments breakdown.

Obviously, your last sentence is correct. I made my choice about god and religion more than 30 years ago. Most of that time I spent pretty much keeping my beliefs to myself. I had made my decision, and that was all I needed. Other people's beliefs didn't really affect me. Or so I thought.

However, the main reason I initiated this effort was owing to the rise of christian fundamentalism and its inroads into our political system - their efforts toward the creation of an American theocracy. That affects me.

I made a quick trip to your site. I can't say that my experience with christian fundamentalists has been quite so devastating as has yours. But as I live in the midwest, in an overwhelmingly conservative state - one where fundamentalists pretty much run rampant - I find it depressing that there are so few non-believers, or even an appreciable number of agnostics - doubters with whom to share a thought here. I did discover that my dentist - actually a student at the IU Dental School - is an atheist. But she is not someone with whom I would have access outside of the dental chair. In any event she will be done with school in a few months and will be heading off to Wisconsin to take over a practice.

I'd love to make acquaintance with someone who doesn't say "thank god," or "god willing'" and mean it.


cipher said...

I think I understand what Stenger is saying. I've come across this idea before - that matter naturally forms systems of increasing complexity. Of course, this says nothing about purpose (or the lack of it). One can still ask "Why?" Whether a self-organizing universe makes the idea of a creator more or less credible is a matter of perspective.

Yeah, I hear you about the Midwest. I live just outside of Boston, and I'm fifty. I'm old enough to remember when the fundamentalists were still lurking on the periphery of society - and still, my experience has been as I've described it. If I'd had to grow up in the Midwest or in the South, especially during the past thirty years - I'd probably have killed myself.

Terry S said...


Ultimately, the issue is, of course, unanswerable. There are any number of "if/then" scenarios which could lead one into numerous directions.

The "whys" of all this are in the end what remains beyond our grasp. Perhaps they always will. Perhaps not. I remain dubious but hopeful.

I have never made it to Boston. I lived in NYC back around 1970 for a couple of years. I developed a love/hate relationship with that city.

My son has a close friend who is a graduate student at Harvard. He visited him there a while back and really loved it. My son had actually been admitted to Emerson College graduate program, but their financial aid package was pretty much non-existent.

And, of course, you guys have "Click and Clack." That's something.

It has been my experience that easterners look askance and with trepidation at the midwest. It certainly has its problems. I was born and grew up here in Indy, so I do have a certain comfort level here. It is, its shortcomings notwithstanding, home.

My son went to Northwestern, and during his several years there, we came to really love Chicago. It's kind of the best of both worlds - a great city with a midwestern flavor.

I have a few years on you at 61, but you and I have both been witness to the growth of religious fundamentalism pretty much throughout the world. It ain't pretty. But don't let them get to you. Just tell them to kiss your ass, or some such. They aren't worth tearing yourself up.

Be well.


CherylT said...

Okay, Terry, I'll bite. Does God exist without us? Everyone who believes in God invariably responds yes. But if we are not here to acknowledge God's existence, then how can we be sure. We can't. And therein lies the duality of nothing and something pointing to the existence of God. You have to take a leap in consciousness to understand the existence of God. Atheists are not willing to take that leap. If and when you are, you will understand what I mean.

God is not some old man with a white beard who controls good and evil. More like a force in the universe too complex for the pea brains of humans to fully comprehend. I am convinced of the existence of God because I've seen God's footprints in this world. I don't have to convince you. And that, my friend, is the beauty of the human experience. You don't have to believe in God for me to be convinced of my own beliefs.

cipher said...


Does God exist without us? Everyone who believes in God invariably responds yes. But if we are not here to acknowledge God's existence, then how can we be sure. We can't. And therein lies the duality of nothing and something pointing to the existence of God.

I'm not sure I understand what it is you're trying to say. In any case, I can't see how this "points" to the existence of God.

Atheists are not willing to take that leap.

That's extremely presumptuous. You've worked it all out - you know precisely why atheists don't believe? And all atheists have the same reasons?

cipher said...


I meant to respond to you earlier.
I know that we tend to be dismissive of the Midwest. My reason for mentioning it is the prevalence of Christian fundamentalism there (and in the South). If I'd had to grow up surrounded by them - I don't know what I would have done. The limited exposure I've had to them up here has been more than I've been able to bear. I meant what I said - they've literally ruined reality for me.

I visited Chicago once. Went to the Art Institute, took the architectural tour on the river. I went through the Frank Lloyd Wright House. I even visited the Bahai temple in Wilmette. I was impressed.

Click and Clack - yeah, I suppose we have to claim them. They're like Jerry Lewis - endearing and annoying at the same time.

Terry S said...


First, thanks for dropping by. The more the merrier. I will return the favor and check out your place soon.

That "leap of consciousness" you speak of is, as I see it, actually a "leap of faith." And, no, atheists are not willing to make that leap, primarily because it's irrational. We don't look upon faith as a virture. Faith is an irrational belief in something for which there is no evidence.

You claim to have seen "god's footprints" in the world. What the devil does that mean? Just as in the context of the political polls we are discussing elsewhere, we can rationalize about anything about anything, can't we? People all too often take about any damn thing that happens as some kind of "sign." A belief in fate or the time worn phrase "things happen for a reason" among other old saws are based on flimsy evidence at best and for the most part on smoke and air.

Believers have, in effect, brainwashed themselves into accepting about anything and everything their pastor tells them. They read meaning into things that just aren't there.

Believers almost invariably believe that non-believers are a forlorn lot living sad, empty lives without conscience or a moral center. That is far from true in most cases. Should you happen upon such a person, it is more likely that their saddness is wrought not from the absence of god in their lives, but rather owing to very earth bound reasons - failed relationships, loss of a job, the death of a loved one, clinical depression, etc, from which we all - believers and non-believers alike - suffer.

Believing in some god or other is attractive to many as it has the effect of lifting a load from us. Instead of looking at ourselves to find explanations or solace, we look to a deity saying "It's god's will," or "We cannot hope to understand the mind of god," and other such stuff.

I don't agree with you about human "pea brains."

Look at what we have learned about our universe in what is in terms of the vastness of space and time, a blink of the eye. In barely more than 200 years we have discovered a tremondous lot about life and the cosmos. Do we have all the answers? Of course not. Will we discover them all? I think we can. Given enough time, access to resources and the continued will to learn, we can, I believe, crack the code as it were. That's not a prediction. We may well blow ourselves to smithereens long before we figure it all out. Only time will tell. But, as I see it, god is no better than an improbable answer to the ultimate questions about our existence.


Terry S said...


Good to hear from you.

Again, I can't say that my experience with fundamentalists has been particularly devastating. Annoying, yes. Maddening, yes.

My now deceased eldest brother was a fundamental minister. His surviving wife and daughter retain that faith. Generally, I avoid getting into religious discussions with them for the sake of family harmony. It would serve no useful purpose to pursue arguments in that vein.

Click and clack. I suppose as they say, familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps they have become annoyingly ubiquitous in the Boston community.

I must admit, though, that whenever I listen to their program, I find that I am pretty much smiling the whole time. That's pretty good, when you think about it.

BTW - I agree with your comments to Cherylt regarding atheist's motivations. We're a widely varied lot. Just as with any other large group of people, we cannot all be pigeon-holed into one slot, or off handedly be poured into one mold. We all come about our positions via different means and different routes.


cipher said...

Yeah, I would have said more to her, but I knew you could handle it.

They always seem to feel the need to rationalize non-belief. Whenever someone makes a remark like, "You don't have to believe in God for me to be convinced of my own beliefs", I'm led to believe that he or she is trying to bolster his/her own flagging belief, trying to keep doubt at bay - else why say it at all? Of course, now I'm making the same kind of general statement for which I took her to task.

I like Click and Clack; they're nice guys. What's not to like? I just can't listen to them for more than a few minutes. How jocular can someone be? Sometimes, you just want to shake them and say, "Answer the damn question!"

Terry S said...


I suppose we, too, are often guilty of making generalizations about others.

A problem I often encounter is having someone, a believer, respond to claims I make about, say christianity, only to have them respond saying, "Well, that's not true christianity." and then go on to define the issue in their terms.

Well, what the hell IS christianity? I think there are nearly as many answers to that as there are christians. They, too, are hard to pin down. And there's so damn many of them!

I know what you're saying about Click and Clack, but I guess I just enjoy sharing in some of their fun. They certainly can't be accused of taking themselves too seriously. Yet, they are knowledgable guys - MIT grads if I've heard correctly. They do impart some good diagnoses and advice when they get around to it.
One imagines that Tom, in particular, may be a bit stoned most of the time - perhaps just a residue of his more raucous youth.


cipher said...

My God, you're right! They did go to MIT - and Tom turned down Harvard (! This is like learning the Three Stooges went to Columbia!

"They aren't REAL Christians" - yeah, one of my personal favorites. That's used to excuse just about any sort of bad behavior of which they can be accused. Someone mentioned something online the other day. They're always saying that you can't have morality without God, which, of course, implies that Christians behave more ethically than do non-believers. It was revealed in the episode "Judgment Day" on Nova a couple of weeks ago that the creationists were guilty of prevarication, of intentionally misleading the public and the court. The witnesses for the prosecution - the evolutionists - received death threats. When the judge - no liberal, by any means - ruled in the prosecution's favor, he started receiving death threats. Of course - they weren't real Christians.

Terry S said...


And just consider what radical muslims are doing all in the name of islam and for the glory of allah. What a crock!


jazzycat said...

It has been a while. Hope all is well with you.

I am glad to see you are still working on this little problem.

Scientists and Christians agree on the fact that the universe had a beginning. Does that kinda shoot this guys theory in the foot?

Terry S said...


Hey. I hope you are well also.

Things are fine here in good ole Indy. Temps in the 60s. Gosh, the whole globe seems to be warming up. What do you think?

In answer to your question, I'd say no. There remains a broad spectrum of thought about our origins. I'd say that Stenger's argument is at least as likely as any of the other positions.

Are you following the presidential race? I must admit, I find it fascinating. The turn of events over the past week on both sides of the coin have been stunning.

McCain's rise from the ashes - considering how he had sabotaged himself during the summer with any number of verbal blubs is quite a surprise.

I assume you are not a Clinton fan, but the results in NH this evening are just off the charts. Actually, I don't believe that she "overcame" a 15 point deficit, but rather proved the pollsters dead wrong. Polling is becoming a precarious profession. Regardless of how sophisticated they claim to be, they nevertheless seem to get it wrong more and more. Of course, the people of NH love to prove the pollsters and pundits wrong. They wear their independence on their sleeves.

On the Rep side, Romney seems to be in the most trouble, especially given the Huckabee and Paul factors which are still to be reckoned with in the coming weeks.

Obama is truly a gifted orator, but, of course, it's about far more than a debating contest. I like Obama, but agree with some that he is a bit too green around the gills.

The next several weeks promise to be interesting.

I take part in an internet radio program on Blogcritics. It is a political round table with 4 or 5 people coming from various sides of the spectrum. It's interesting to take part in it, but I must admit that hearing my recorded voice is disturbing on a number of levels.

Again, I hope you had a good holiday season and that the new year is getting off to a good start for you and yours.

We intend to go to Germany in late March to visit my son for a week or so. I hope the weather cooperates.


jazzycat said...

Yes, I am following the presidental race. I was for Phil Gramm in 96, Steve Forbes in 2000. As you probably know I do not trust nor vote for democrats as I feel they have become a socialist party. The republicans in congress have become a bunch wimps in my opinion. I am probably leaning toward Romney, but that could change. McCain is probably the only one of the top five I have not considered.

I will vote for a republican in Nov. for sure.

Have a good trip to Germany.